Poetry We Admire: Tipping Points

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This August’s Poetry We Admire comes on the heels of a month which saw the release of the IPCC’s latest (direst) report on the global ramifications of climate change, surges in COVID-19 cases as the Delta variant sweeps across the United States, and historic heat waves in the Pacific Northwest at the worst of possible times.

The problems of the world are our problems. Often the change needed to meet them seems to demand effort of superhuman proportion. The poems that have helped me most in these times are those that remind me to reassess my understanding of what it means to be human — to be possible, to change radically, for the sake of something beyond self-actualization.

The poems I have come across in the last month are pieces of this kind. They aren’t poems that always remind me to love the world. They are poems that remind me, always, to ask myself if I love the world more than I love the way it makes me feel. In that space, maybe, room for change.

For all these reasons, Tipping Points seemed an appropriate theme for August’s PWA column. Gathered below are five poems which engage in various ways with this theme, poems that change or encourage change, which bear witness to climate crisis and structural disruption, to the steady erosion of hope and the swift erosion of personal privacy. They place us in history, in memory, in art, sound, and form — in what is still, cut short, the world.

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Timmy Straw, “Copernicus

in Poem-a-Day

“Outside the poem / are sirens, fires, ocean hitting / pier. Say to yourself: does not cohere / but is subsumed / and must not, must not.”

I admire this poem of Straw’s for its concurrent usage of change and repetition in ways that seem perpetually, though never pointlessly, at odds with one another, the poem at once creating and troubling its own sense of order. Lines like “You are always in the middle of the poem / even at the end,” & “once more you have tracked mud into the house. / Have tracked a house into the mud,” bear a tone of authority that seems almost to contradict the multiple possibilities the poem affords to its readers. A tertiary space emerges, in which authority and possibility cohere into something else entirely — the poem itself.

 

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D’mani Thomas, “Ekphrastic after “Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes or &…I hope you like me ‘cause I’m nervous

in Shade Literary Arts

“& maybe we should hold hands like it means something & it doesn’t // It’s just my legs are jello and i need someone I trust for the walk home”

As noted in Thomas’ bio, the poems he writes are interested, among other things, in “what it means to create intimacy under total surveillance.” I was particularly taken with the way this obsession manifests in “Ekphrastic after ‘Sugar Shack…’”, wherein even on the intimacy of the dance floor neither the state nor late capitalism can be eluded, though neither’s omnipresence is accompanied by any promise of personal safety.

 

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Ron Riekki, “Suzhou

in Qu literary magazine

“similar, / I suppose, to how I traveled to China fifteen years / later, returned to the U.S., and found myself / never having the time or money to go back, how / I started to wonder if China was real or dream,”

I love Riekki’s poem for its movement, the way it travels between remembrances, engaging first with the memory of a specific instance and then, as the poem unfolds, the memory of an idea. Readers travel in linear fashion towards the poem’s conclusion, coming to rest in the present, no more certain or less rife with dreaming than the past had been.

 

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Cynthia Dewi Oka, “Acela Express

in Iterant 

“On the train to New York formerly New / Amsterdam until the Dutch / traded it for a speck of nutmeg // in the Moluccas held by the English your / head could be a sunflower”

I admire this poem for many reasons, among them the way it engages with ideas of nationhood, of what constitutes a nation. Lines like “you have not been / holding intestines in your hands // a nation is fragile,” and “catch / fire in the atmosphere it is time to let // the past throw / the horn for geopolitical reasons a helmet / is a hole inside of a hill,” call into question the rift between the language and actions of nation-states and their inhabitants, in turn problematizing the idea of the nation as a fixed, unchanging entity.

 

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Caleb Parker, “Mountain Triquetra

in New Delta Review

“the saltwater / snail was not / a snail but // a boy who / fell in love with / me because of // my newest grief,”

I admire Parker’s “Mountain Triquetra” for its uses of repetition in language and form alike, and the way its sections function as much as individual clippings as they do parts of a whole. Stanzas such as “the saltwater / snail was not / a snail but,” “father, all / filled with / gentleness like,” and “the Earth itself / on our porch he / said I wasn’t the,” come together to create a larger, unified reading experience, but also succeed in standing alone. Similarly, the poem’s form encourages multiple different approaches to its reading, the act of which becomes an interactive experience in itself.


Benjamin Bartu

Benjamin Bartu is a high school teacher, poet, & writer. He is the winner of the Blood Orange Review’s inaugural poetry contest. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, The Shore Poetry, The Tahoma Literary Review, Tilde, & elsewhere. An Associate Editor at Palette Poetry, he can be found on twitter @alampnamedben.